“It started with a kiss” A playlist for my introductory methods course

The Fall 2020 semester has not, to put it mildly, been the high point of my academic career. Having elected to teach remotely (thanks to my employer’s decision to give faculty autonomy to do so) I struggled with two new course preps, one of which is our Religious Studies major methods course. The class also draws a fair number of non-majors, students who are curious about how to study religion, and some who mistook the course for a similar course (Intro to World Religions—yes, I know it’s a problematic holdover but I can only do so much).

I took a thematic approach to the course, grouping the theories of religion by academic discipline but with a central question tying the ideas together. Students pondered whether religion was about ritual, community, mystical experiences, or morals, among other topics. Because my real area of expertise is the history of religions in America, I included a healthy amount of Americans—Rosemary Radford Reuther, for example—and American topics.

During one of those weeks, students had read part of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. As we were discussing Paine’s savage attack on revealed texts, which he calls no better than “hearsay,” my brain suddenly shifted to the Killers’ song “Somebody Told Me.” I mentioned the lyrics to the class (“somebody told me/that you had a boyfriend/who looked like a girlfriend/I had in February of last year”). It’s a bit old for students who graduated from high school between 2017 and 2020, but they knew it and humored me.

Later, I began to wonder if you could tie other Killers’ songs to other theories of religion. I struck out there, but I did start compiling a playlist on Spotify, entitled “Theories of Religion.” A few of my Twitter friends expressed an interest in it, so I’m writing it up here to share it widely.

The Killers, “Somebody Told Me”
Thomas Paine (anti-revelation)

The Beatles “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
William James (mysticism)

Sister Sledge “We Are Family”
Emile Durkheim (community)

Taylor Swift “We Are Never Getting Back Together”
“Nones” (the move away from organized religion)

Public Enemy “Don’t Believe the Hype”
Christopher Hitchens and atheists

Twenty One Pilots “The Hype”
Christopher Hitchens and atheists

The Cars “Drive”

Sigmund Freud (wish fulfillment)

Tracy Chapman
“Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” Karl Marx (religion suppresses the masses’ impulses to revolt)

The Police “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”
Max Weber (routinization continues the prophet’s message)

Barry White “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything”
Paul Tillich (god as the ground of all being)

Prince “I Would Die 4 U”
Ninian Smart (empathetic imagination)

R.E.M. “Stand”
Rudolf Otto (religion is non-rational experience, this is a non-rational song)

Woody Guthrie “This Land is Your Land”
Robert Bellah (civil religion, original article)

Childish Gambino “This is America”
Robert Bellah (civil religion more recently)

Bob Dylan “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”
Mircea Eliade (the sacred and the profane)

DJ Casper, Hardino “Cha Cha Slide”
Victor Turner (ritual)

Lizzo “Truth Hurts”
(Rosemary Radford Reuther’s challenge to religious patriarchies)

John Lennon “Imagine”
(Are morals dependent on religion?)

Depeche Mode, “Personal Jesus”
(Wilfred Cantwell Smith (individual faith is central)

R.E.M., “Losing My Religion”

Clifford Geertz (religion provides meaning in an apparently meaningless world)

Singing their way to the ballot box

I woke up this morning to the sounds of “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” as NPR informed me what I had already expected, that Roy Moore had defeated barely-incumbent Senator Luther Strange in the Alabama Republican primary. That Moore won was not surprising, but his supporters’ rendition of an old Christian hymn did give me a sense of deja vu. While veteran monitors of Judge Moore and his past embrace of Christian nationalism were probably already familiar with the use of Christian hymnody at his rallies, I was struck by the similarity to southern white evangelical Christians who dabbled in politics over a century ago.

As I wrote in my first book, Rethinking Zion: How the Print Media Placed Fundamentalism in the South, white evangelicals in southern states were some of the first to jump on the temperance and prohibition bandwagon. When Alabama’s neighbor, Georgia, passed a statewide prohibition measure in 1907, the New York Times reported that the legislators and observers spontaneously broke into a rendition of “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” also known as the Long Meter Doxology.

Such displays of religious piety are possible only when the involved group is religiously homogeneous. It assumes that all members know the tune and the words. If you start singing a song that’s not call and response and your fellow singers don’t know it, the whole effect is quickly lost. But for Judge Moore’s supporters, the common bond is white interpretations of evangelical Protestant Christianity, and that bond supplies them with a both a common message and a common playlist.

The Georgia legislators who enacted statewide prohibition over a century ago were largely evangelical Protestants and white. Like Moore, they were reacting to perceived threats, many of which still resonate with Alabama Republicans. In the early 20th century south, white state governments feared African American enfranchisement and rights, an influx of religiously different immigrants coming to the country (waves of Catholics and Jews then), and the changing social standards brought on by new technologies. Moore has voiced his doubts that President Barack Obama was born in the United States (a dog whistle for white supremacists, among others), argued that Islam is a “false religion,” and repeatedly attacked LGBTQ rights.

So for political pundits who are trying to make sense of Judge Moore’s religious and political beliefs, look to the past, and you’ll see the parallels.


Image credit:  By AuburnPilot (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Who lives, who dies, who reads your story?

When I was writing my second book, Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism Between the Wars, I wrote with a pretty specific audience in mind. Perhaps selling myself a bit short and surely with a fair bit of white and academic privilege, I thought that the only people who would want to read about black evangelicals and their encounter with fundamentalism in the early twentieth century would be those historians who, like me, study fundamentalism and evangelicalism in American history. We’re not a big group. Heck, Katie Lofton managed to get pretty much all of us around a single conference table back in 2013. But much to my surprise, the book has found other audiences, and it’s thanks to them that it has sold so well in its first six months since publication.

Continue reading “Who lives, who dies, who reads your story?”

When every day is a teachable moment

The pundits have declared students as “special snowflakes” once again, after an unruly group protested a speaker at Middlebury. Commentators from conservative to liberal have decried the students’ actions and yet again laid the blame for such incidents squarely on the shoulders of professors, instructors who “coddle” the students and only make them hear that with which they agree.  But I’d like to take exception to these pronouncements and issue a standing invitation to commentators to come visit my classroom sometime. What would they see? A wide range of students, from diverse backgrounds, with differing opinions, engaging in civil conversations about the course material and the world at large. Sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it? No “moral dry rot” as Thomas Sowell would have it. No “swarm” or “illiberalism,” as Frank Bruni sees it.

Instead, students in my classes–and in countless other classes across the country–know that their opinions are respected, both by their classmates and by their instructor. And they feel the freedom to make connections between the class materials and present-day events. This is why the Middlebury incident stands out–for its rarity.

Continue reading “When every day is a teachable moment”

Jesus wants my vote?

Yesterday (Sunday, November 6th) was a beautiful day to be outside in my neighborhood, which probably explains why I missed Mike Huckabee‘s call. According to my voice mail, he (or his robo recording) called at 2:34 in the afternoon. In a very brief message, Huckabee asked me to vote on Tuesday (“or earlier, by mail or absentee ballot”) and noted that Jesus had told Christians to “render unto Caesar what was his and unto God what was God’s.” This quote from the Gospel of Matthew led Huckabee into a claim of religious kinship with me (“we as Christians are called to be the salt and the light of society”) and he urged me to vote for candidates who support “life, marriage, religious freedom, and Israel.” According to the Southern Baptist pastor and former governor of Arkansas, I should also remind my friends and family to vote as well. The message included a call back number and the statement that it had been paid for by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group started by Ralph Reed. I tried calling the phone number listed today, but I could only leave a message unless I knew the extension of the party I wished to reach.

The fours “issues” Governor Huckabee thinks I should be weighing when voting for candidates, according to this FFC-funded effort. “Life, marriage, religious freedom, and Israel” are words that many evangelical voters would immediately recognize as clarion calls to arms. “Life” for FFC means opposition to abortion, “marriage” means heterosexual unions, “religious freedom” means passing laws to stop transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice (and asking President Obama “to stop putting our children in danger”) and “Israel” means supporting Israel’s right to exist and defending it against enemies in the international arena. FFC’s website is pretty heavily saturated right now with clickable items in the “religious freedom” category, with only a smattering of stories or petitions about “life,” “marriage,” and “Israel.” Be that as it may, the site clearly reflects a group that is both conservative in its evangelicalism and fairly media-savvy (with Twitter and Instagram accounts, but no Snapchat or Tumblr). Its voter guide for my state casts Trump in a more favorable light than Clinton.

While Governor Huckabee never mentioned a candidate by name, the only national candidates I could vote for this year are the President of the United States (actually, here in Virginia we vote for the electors for the candidate, not the candidate per se) and my House of Representatives member. His organization assumes that the folks who hear this message speak the same language they do, and will be inspired to vote. Indeed, this may substitute for the usual Republican GOTV effort, as the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee don’t seem to be playing together very nicely recently.

I’m not really sure why my home phone number was on this call list. I live in a state that has been blue for the last several elections and boasts the vice presidential nominee for the Democrats as one of its U.S. Senators. There are decidedly red areas of this state, but not near my house. I’ve never donated to Huckabee or the FFC. All of this means I could have an interpretation of “life, marriage, religious freedom, and Israel” that means something very different.

“Life” by itself could be a call to respect human dignity in all people, whether they are young or old, racially different than me or similar to me, opposed to my politics or in solidarity with me. I think I’ll interpret this one as respect for all of the people I meet between now and tomorrow (election day) and beyond–regardless of their politics.

“Marriage” could mean same-sex marriage, no marriage, or marriage when two people feel like it’s appropriate. Because same-sex marriage is the law of the land now, I’m going to take a leap and say that voting for marriage is really not what I need my candidates to do now.

“Religious freedom” is a catchy term and one that’s clearly on the minds of evangelicals who oppose the Affordable Care Act’s contraception requirements and transgender bathroom laws. But in light of a recent anti-Semitic ad by one of the candidates I could have voted for, and in light of the escalating Islamophobia, I will consider religious freedom to mean the right for any American to practice her or his religion peacefully without fear of interference from the state or hate groups.

So what else could “Israel” mean? Well, for Jews, Israel means multiple things: the promised land, the people of God, or God’s promise for the future. In fact, in my Abrahamic Religions course, we spend quite a bit of time talking about how the notion of Israel (as part of G-d–Torah–Israel) is a key component of Judaism but that its meaning has changed over time and for different Jews in different ways. Israel as hope for the future of humanity is a particularly important concept to embrace in this troubled election cycle.

Mike Huckabee might read this (although I doubt it) and conclude that the sower’s seeds (Mark 4) fell on a rocky place when the call came to my voice mail. Or his organization could have done its homework better and realize that he caught me too late and that I had already voted “absentee  in person” on the final day Virginia permitted me to do so–the day before his call. FFC might not have known about Virginia’s election laws, but I did, and I’m betting that, if Jesus wanted my vote, He knew the deadline too.





Teaching the nones and the millennials

For the past few weeks, I’ve been pondering how the changes in the religious make-up of the United States have influenced the worldviews of my students. According to the Pew Center for Religion and Public Life’s 2015 report, Americans are heading down two radically different paths. The number of people who do not affiliate with a religion, or the “nones” as they are known in academic shorthand (and not to be confused with nuns–homophones are so confusing in spoken English), are increasing. But at the same time, those Americans who do affiliate with a religious body are maintaining their religious practices with no real decline. The Pew study was done with sound research methods, much better than the anecdotal trends I can report from my experience teaching American and European religious history. But that won’t stop me from describing my own observations and engaging, I hope, in a conversation with others who have recently written on this topic.

The generalizations

Overall, students in my classes have been intensely curious about religion, religious practice, religious beliefs, and religious adherents. In ways that mirror the Pew study, those students tend toward one of two backgrounds: 1) the students who grew up without religion and who want to learn about why people are religious, and 2) the students who grew up with religion and who want to learn about other religions, often with varying reasons.

In the first group, the students look very much like the Pew study’s respondents. They have never attended church, except to appease a grandparent or to attend a funeral, and many, like Erin Bartram’s students, want to know why anyone would still believe something the millennials think merely justifies oppression, racism, violence, and war. These students, as Jolyon Baraka Thomas notes, have a set of notions that the religious studies classroom seeks to disrupt. I’ve banned what I call the “c-word” (crazy) from our classroom discussions, and I stress in each course that if you want to stop what you see is oppression, you need to understand its origins to better dismantle it. Thus, if you really think that religion is merely a tool for violence, you’d better be ready to explain the nuts and bolts of that view and not just toss around insults about the Crusades or the Inquisition. At the root of these students’ concerns about religious beliefs’ negative impacts is usually a facile or deterministic understanding of why someone believes. I try to work to ensure that they first understand the beliefs and then see how believers act upon those tenets.

In the second group, however, there are distinct challenges as well. While some believers come to class with an ecumenical outlook and enjoy the exchange of ideas, others expect that I will teach their “true” doctrine to the rest of the class and are sorely disappointed when I fail to comply. Indeed, one student approached me after class and said, “Professor Mathews, I feel like God is using you to test me.” As my institution’s student body has become more diverse, these “true believers” come from increasingly different backgrounds as well, such that, in addition to Christian “true believers,” I have some Muslims (certainly not all) in class who get frustrated when I don’t sound like their local imam. A few years ago, I taught a course on the European Reformations in which a group of Roman Catholic students and a group of evangelical Protestants waged rhetorical wars on each other every Tuesday and Thursday from 3:30 to 5 p.m.  I’ve also had a few students who are “true believers” who have taken religion courses or even become religion majors so that they can understand the secular beast and use its tools to destroy it from within.

In the “true believers” group, millennials’ passion for ideas and social justice especially shine. While some of my colleagues might see the millennials reflected more in the nones, I see them in the religious enthusiasm of the “true believers.” In religion, some millennials see the answers to a world that appears to be abrogating its promises to them. Religion rights wrongs, religion promotes dignity, religion embraces community. This is not to say that religious fervor is solely a millennial phenomenon, but to suggest that the millennials embrace it in a way consistent with their peers’ hopes and aspirations for a better world.

The take-aways (or as it’s called in my class, the “so-what?”)

So how do we teach the millennials, full of passion and curiosity, and sometimes short on religious literacy? Here are some suggestions, and I welcome more.

  1. Start the semester off with a “back to basics” class or two, in which you gauge the enrolled students’ religious knowledge. Anonymous index cards with quick responses to questions like “how many gospels are there in the Christian New Testament?” “how comfortable do you feel studying a different religious tradition?” or “what would you like to learn about this semester” can break the ice, both for the class and for the instructor. I’m considering using Bluepulse this upcoming semester to ensure anonymity.
  2. Create clear directions in your syllabus about how to talk about different points of view, and remind the students that civility is necessary. I’ve used this boilerplate in my syllabi recently to signal my interest in a fair exchange of views: A word about diversity in religion: this class will examine **fill in the blank** religions in their own context and in the context of their encounters with other religious traditions. We will not, however, engage in subjective judgments about any religion we discuss. In the classroom, as in any academic environment, we must engage in open and impartial consideration of the subject.
  3. Use readings and visual presentations that challenge your students and disrupt their preconceptions, and keep at these challenges even if the students push back. It’s important for students in a course on early American religious history to understand that science and religion interacted with each other in ways that are very different than in today’s culture. That’s part of our job to get our classes to think historically and recognize change over time. It’s also important to include materials that show both the good and bad sides of religious belief. R. Marie Griffith‘s American Religions: A Documentary History (Oxford, 2008) has selections of both. In her excerpt of George Armstrong’s The Christian Doctrine of Slavery, students encounter the white Southern theological justification for human bondage, while a few pages later, they can read Walter Rauschenbusch’s A Theology for the Social Gospel. You may have to push your students to read more critically, and you may have to do some contextualization for them, as I have found when teaching Robert Warrior’s “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians: Deliverance, Conquest, and Liberation.” Don’t give up if the students in one iteration of the course don’t understand the objective of an assignment; keep pushing the envelope, but also look for new ways to locate the material with them. As the feature image shows, I’ve used Venn diagrams to explain the varieties of Christianity. And I resort to “salvation equations” to explain the difference between Catholic and Protestant views of salvation. My “Flat Luther” makes a fun companion/prop when I teach the Protestant Reformation.”

    Luther monitors my class prep
    Luther monitors my class prep

    Or you can write on the desk: chalk

    I’d be interested to hear from colleagues at other institutions if they see the same trends I do. I don’t think it’s a regional issue, but I could be wrong. Do your students struggle with religion in history, and if so, what have you done to address that difficulty?


Keep your digital mitts off my great-grandmother!

My grandmother, Ruth Kulamer Swetnam
My grandmother, Ruth Kulamer Swetnam


A few months ago, after retelling a bit of family folklore to my husband’s siblings, I decided to Google the name of the relative involved in that epic adventure (which I will not relate on this blog–you’ll just have to ask me in person the next time you see me). Imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of the hits did not refer to the person in question but to another of my relatives–my great-grandmother, Rose Kulamer. She’s internet-famous for having died from an illegal abortion.

I already knew the bare bones of that story. In 1989, Rose’s daughter, Ruth Kulamer Swetnam, told me that her mother had died from an illegal abortion when my grandmother was young. Grandma was nearing the end of her own life when she told me this story. According to her, my great-grandmother, when she learned she was pregnant again, confided in a friend that she didn’t know how she would deal with a fourth child. The friend told Rose that she knew someone who could provide her an abortion. In my grandmother’s account, Rose had the abortion and died from complications.

That story was pretty much all I probably needed to know at the time, and given that my grandmother died less than a month after passing this information on to me, I had little chance to ask follow-up questions. Nor was I particularly interested in asking additional questions–my great-grandmother had been dead for about 70 years, I had never known her, and I saw her death as a tragedy of her times.

Family lore also has it that my great-grandfather, at that point a widower, put his three daughters into a Catholic orphanage, promising to return to retrieve them after the weekend, only to vanish for some longer period of time (estimates range from months to years), reappearing with a new wife.

So how did poor Rose Kulamer become internet-famous for her death? She, and many other women who died under similar circumstances, have become fodder for anti-abortion bloggers. Rose’s story appears in at least two of their forums: Real Choice and Rhonda O. Goldman Life. Each site includes information, gleaned from newspaper articles, coroner’s reports, and other archives, to chronicle, as the authors see it, the dangers of permitting legalized abortion in the United States.

The use of my relative–and the relatives of many other Americans–for issue advocacy raises a set of troubling questions. First, while this information is certainly in the public domain, how much thought for the victims’ lives have the authors given? Second, how good are the blog authors’ historical methods? Third, have these bloggers given serious consideration to other questions that were clearly factors during some of these women’s lives, factors such as the efficacy of available birth control methods or the lack of sterile procedures in any medical procedure, legal or illegal? And fourth, what are the ethics of using and sharing information about people, whether in pursuit of historical research or issue advocacy?  Let’s take them in order.

First, on the issue of consideration for the victims’ lives, the blog authors appear to care sincerely that women have died from illegal abortions, even as they strip away any right to privacy these women (and their descendants) may have. Indeed, Real Choice includes intimate details about women’s symptoms as they fought septic infections, as well as photos when available of the women and abortion providers. The website appears to believe that women who died forfeited any right to privacy, and that such gruesome details and public airing of them are necessary evils when fighting abortion–legal or illegal. Real Choice covers abortions both pre- and post- Roe v. Wade, and its author, Christina Dunigan, has helpfully included a page on why she believes that rescinding the right to abortion would not result in a rise in abortion-related deaths. More about that page below in answer to question three.

Second, on the issue of historical methods, the blogs Real Choice and Rhoda O. Goldman Life both use information borrowed from Cemetery of Choice, a wiki administered by a group of contributors, including Christina Dunigan. She cites Cemetery of Choice in her entry on my great-grandmother, but Rhonda O. Goldman Life does not, despite the fact that the language is clearly copied straight from Real Choice and/or Cemetery of Choice. To give Christina Dunigan credit, she does provide the coroner’s report number in the Cemetery of Choice wiki entry, and she has recently uploaded a copy of my great-grandmother’s death certificate, in case you’d like to know how much she weighed or to confirm that the cause of death was indeed septicemia.

But the attention to detail here is lacking. The death certificate clearly states in three separate places that Rose died in 1918, yet the wiki and both blogs constantly refer to the year as 1919. While the non-historian might ask, “what’s the difference between 1918 and 1919?” when a date appears several different times on a pdf you’ve uploaded (and clearly was available on the coroner’s report), there’s no excuse for getting it wrong. It undercuts your credibility and raises questions about your other data. Dunigan has also placed an entry for Rose Kulamer at FindAGrave.com, but the entry notes only the names of Rose’s husband, John, and two of their three children. Nor does it mention the location of the actual grave site, which does appear on the death certificate.

Dunigan exhibits interest in illustrating different approaches to abortion over time, as in a recent blog post comparing early 20th century abortion deaths in Chicago and Pittsburgh with a later (1972) death in New York. That attempt to contrast abortion practices in Chicago and Pittsburgh appears to build on material Dunigan has read, used verbatim, and cited from Leslie Reagan’s When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (University of California Press, 1997).

Third, the blog authors do appear to have considered the medical advancements in the field of hygiene, blood transfusions, and antibiotics as they maintain their digital vigil against abortion. Cemetery of Choice provides a small notation at the bottom of each entry, noting that medicine was not well equipped to deal with abortion complications during much of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. But the authors make no distinction between abortion and any other procedure during a similar time frame. In other words, they do not note that in the early twentieth century, a ruptured appendix or stepping on a rusty nail–or even giving birth with a condition like placenta previa–could kill you just as easily as the sepsis following an abortion. Moreover, there’s no discussion on these websites about how effective birth control could have prevented unwanted pregnancies in the first place. Indeed, my great-grandmother was already a mother to three daughters. She likely already practiced some sort of contraception, as my great-aunt Louise was three years older than my grandmother, and my great-aunt Anna was five years younger. Three births spaced over eleven years suggests a measure of reproductive regulation. That my great-grandmother wondered how she would care for a fourth child (the family oral history from my grandmother) likely tells us that her birth control–whatever it was–failed her.

Fourth, and finally, Rose’s status as poster-victim for the right-to-life movement poses an ethical dilemma, one that has new repercussions in the digital age. Teenagers and their parents are routinely warned to protect their digital identities, yet my great-grandmother’s ignominious death does not garner her privacy. In fact, it’s the only reason she’s an internet “celebrity.” She would have remained anonymous to all but her family members’ memory had it not been for these bloggers and their issue advocacy. Earlier this month, Christine Dinsmore recently wrote in the Washington Post about her own grandmother’s death . At first blush, this approach seems more ethical–Dinsmore outed her own relative. But, like the right-to-life bloggers, it assumes that the victim, in this case Maria Consolazio, would willingly share an intimate part of her life to prevent other women from enduring similar deaths. She may well have, but we do not have the means to know for certain.

As a historian myself, I weigh carefully my decisions when using my sources, and I probably do let my political inclinations influence my final judgments. The family of J. Frank Norris, Texas fundamentalist in the 1920s and 1930s, would likely not appreciate my extended discussion of his racism in my forthcoming book. But my analysis of Norris contributes to a larger scholarly consensus on the matter. Moreover, Norris was a public figure–a man who actively sought press coverage of his life and work. Maria Consolazio, Rose Kulamer, and many others were private citizens in an age when computers were still a very distant dream.

To be sure, Leslie Reagan’s work on the history of illegal abortion in the United States also relies heavily on sharing information that descendants might well wish was buried with their ancestors. When Reagan published the book in the late 1990s, however, she could have had little idea that her publisher would include it in an online library and that Ms. Dunigan would copy and paste large swaths of her prose into the Real Choice website.

I’m fully aware of the irony here–I’m writing a blog post about my great-grandmother’s digital fame, a post that will only lead to more digital recognition of what happened to her, especially as I have my blog set to share my posts via Twitter and Facebook. In many ways, though, the damage is already done–people who never knew any member of my family have used my great-grandmother for their own ends, even if their goals are noble. The very least I can do is write this post and caution them and anyone else. Think twice before you post the autopsy report, the coroner’s report, the photos, and the names. I’ve been able to locate the name of the individual who was charged with (although apparently not convicted of) performing the botched abortion on my great-grandmother. And I’m not going to publish it here. Instead, let’s think twice before we start using someone’s dead relative to make our point.


Got (religious) diversity?


A couple of weeks ago in a Northern Virginia suburb, I saw a car festooned with four bumper stickers, From top to bottom, they read “got diversity?” “Ben Carson President 2016,” “Ted Cruz 2016,” and “Carly [Fiorina] 2016.” I’m guessing that the driver’s decision to decorate the car with these stickers, including the diversity question, was a proud exclamation that the GOP’s presidential field has, at least through tomorrow’s Iowa caucuses, one African American, one (actually two) Cuban American, and one woman.  Indeed, the Republican field has more ethnic diversity than the Democratic slate of contenders.

But my mind went back to an in-class exercise we did in my “Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in America” course last fall. At that point, there were still 17 Republicans in the race, and 5 Democrats. We checked online sources to determine each candidate’s public religious preference. That informal study revealed, like most studies do, that you can split the data a number of ways. If you rely solely on various denominations of Christianity, the Republican field in November 2015 won hands down in the religious diversity race. But if you use a different metric–how many non-Christians are in the race–the Democrats prevailed.

Here’s a quick sketch of our findings:


Hillary Clinton  Methodist

Bernie Sanders  Secular Jew

Lincoln Chafee   Episcopalian

Martin O’Malley  Roman Catholic

 Jim Webb  Protestant(?)



Donald Trump  Presbyterian                                                  

Scott Walker  Non-denominational Christian                       

Rick Perry Non-denominational Christian

Carly Fiorina  Episcopalian                                                      

Rick Santorum Roman Catholic                                           

Ben Carson  Seventh-day Adventist

Marco Rubio  Roman Catholic

Ted Cruz  Southern Baptist

Bobby Jindal Roman Catholic

George Pataki Roman Catholic

Chris Christie  Roman Catholic

Jeb Bush  Roman Catholic

Lindsey Graham  Southern Baptist

Jim Gilmore Methodist

Mike Huckabee  Southern Baptist

Rand Paul  Presbyterian

John Kasich  Anglican

So what does all of this tell us? In many ways, candidates of both parties reflect the traditional hegemony of Christianity in American politics. All but one–Sanders–identify themselves with some form of Christianity, with Bobby Jindal’s unusual conversion from Hindu to Catholic as a missed opportunity for more religious diversity in Republican, or even, American politics. Reading a little further into their faith biographies, you’ll find that while some have maintained the religion of their childhood (Clinton, Pataki, Huckabee, and O’Malley, for instance), others have engaged in a very “American” spiritual wandering (Rubio especially stands out here). Ben Carson is the only Protestant in the bunch who does not worship at what used to be called “mainline churches.”

Moreover, the field of all contenders for the 2016 White House do not reflect the religious character of the country as measured in a 2015 Pew study. In their findings, Pew researchers noted that “mainline” Protestants were only 14% of the American population, while Roman Catholics had dropped to 20%. Out of 22 candidates listed above, 7 are Roman Catholic–closer to 30% of the field. And 9 of the candidates are mainline Protestants–just over 40% of the total 22. The Pew study also found a rise in non-Christian faiths, but that is not reflected in the religions of the candidates. No Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists are running, and even Bernie Sanders distances himself from being an observant Jew.

Religious diversity has not yet arrived in the presidential field of either party. Does anyone want to bet that will change in 2020? Given the recent virulent Islamophobia in campaign ads and speeches, I sincerely doubt it will.



Who’s this syllabus for anyway?

As the winter break draws to a close, I’m revising and editing my syllabi for the upcoming semester. Actually, I’ve already finished them, but as I was working on them this week, I pondered what this exercise means in the 21st century. With “outcomes goals” and various other statements added to syllabi, the question I’m considering is for whom am I writing these? The answer should be for my students. But increasingly, I wonder if I’m the only one who thinks that.

I’m old school–I remember a time when the only copy of the syllabus you got was the one the professor handed you on day one of the course. Lose it, and you had to depend on the kindness of your classmates to figure out what you had to do and when. In those days–which I’m certainly not calling the “good old days”–syllabi were lean, rarely stretching beyond two pages. The top of the syllabus had the course number, title, professor’s name and office hours, and this information was followed by a list of books and dates for assignments. Rounding it all out was the date for the final exam and the professor’s weighting of the grades.

I largely adhere to that format, but I, like most of my colleagues, have expanded on the basics. I include a statement about what the course will cover in general. I add information about what should be in a research or reaction paper. I clearly state my policy on extensions (rarely granted) and my loyalty to the institution’s Honor Code.

And I’ve gladly added some information at the behest of various administrative offices, most notably the information pertaining to accommodations for students who require them. Our Office of Disability Resources helpfully supplies faculty with a draft paragraph, and I’ve edited it to reflect my style.

But now that we’ve entered the age of assessment, I find that school, state, and regional accreditation bodies require me to add sections to my syllabus to describe how my course will satisfy a set of goals determined by a committee overseeing the type of course I’m offering. For example, my RELG 278 course, Religion in America After the Civil War, is designated as a Writing Intensive course, a General Education Course (in the Human Experience and Society category), and, oh right, a Religion course. Each of these designations means that I must add a paragraph (even just a brief one) explaining how my course will satisfy each designation. Then I must save my course in a pdf with a particular citation style and send a copy to our office manager, who then compiles all of the department’s offerings and sends them off to the dean and the assistant provost for institutional effectiveness and assessment.

So writing paragraphs isn’t the most onerous task I have ever faced as an academic, but the inclusion of this material in a document I primarily view as a road map for my students makes me begin to understand why there’s now a cottage industry of memes devoted to lamenting how students don’t read the syllabus.

Batman has a syllabus?

Or is it because you’ve had too many beers?

Morpheus schools Neo

Yes, Ryan Gosling, you can see my syllabus. But please don’t refer to me as a “girl.”

I try to find better ways to make sure my students read the syllabus, including making it the home page of the course’s Canvas site. But as I inserted the assessment paragraphs this time around, I realized that at least a part of the problem is that if I put the “course outcomes” on the first page, the stuff the students care about–where do I find the reading? when is the next paper due?–gets pushed back, further and further into the document. I’m not saying that students need to be able to read the entire document–oh wait, I am–but it doesn’t make sense to bury the critical information for the primary consumers of that information.

So with the last syllabus I drafted for the semester, I engaged in just a tiny bit of subversion. I moved the outcomes statement to the end. For my RELG 250 class, African American Religions–an Honors course, a General Education course, and, oh right, a Religion course–the statement follows the schedule, the grading policy, the information on research paper options, and the contact information for the Office of Disability Resources.

So now two things remain to be seen. One, does it help the students? And two, will the administration notice and/or care? I’m betting the answers are 1) yes and 2) no.



Religion in the Digital Age: Schedule planning weeks 1 and 2

Next up in course planning; when and what (also known as the framework of the syllabus). Below is a really rough draft of how I envision the course proceeding in the first two weeks, but by the end of the syllabus drafting, I may resort to Andrea Livi Smith’s most excellent way of planning. I’ve arranged topics tentatively by week; assignments will come later. For the time being, I’m planning on having the class do small group projects in which they build a domain that explores a digital community, digital version of a religious text, or some other digital interpretation of religion.

Week 1

What is religion?

I envision this week as an introduction to the various notions of religion and religious studies, including a very brief look at some theories of religion.

Week 2

What is the digital age? How did religious groups ever manage before the internet?

Since I’m a historian by training, I find it helpful to ground my explorations in what the past was like and how the present differs. *Spoiler alert: I fully expect that by the end of the semester, we’ll decide that the only thing that may have changed is the medium and not the message.* Nevertheless, we can start with ideas of community, message, doctrine, adherence, apostasy in “analog” times.

Then comes the hard part: how to tackle the next few weeks. Possible ideas include 1) taking the ideas above (community, message, doctrine, adherence, apostasy, etc) and turning them into one-week explorations; or 2)  looking at various social media platforms (Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) and how religious groups use them. These two ideas don’t need to be mutually exclusive: one could study message and outreach through Facebook, for example.

More to come…